"Takashi Murakami: The Meaning of the Nonsense of the Meaning," June 27-Sept. 12, 1999, at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, Annendale-on-Hudson, N.Y. 12504.
Takashi Murakami's life-sized female fiberglass figure looks like a Japanimation hologram come to life. Hiropon (slang for heroin) is an infantilized, petite running thing with tiny feet. Naked but for a teeny top, she sports a hairless pudenda with no genitalia; parted, breathless lips (of course); Caucasian eyes; and gigantic bazoombas barely held back by her microscopic bikini top. She squeezes her long, phallic/udder-like nipples, which explode in a gusher of milk that surrounds her like a cosmic jump rope.
If you think of Murakami's art as a van Gogh landscape -- as something to be enjoyed purely for itself, to be reveled in or just looked at -- you'll have a pleasant time at "The Meaning of the Nonsense of Meaning," Murakami's sophomorically titled survey at Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies. Co-curated by Amada Cruz and Dana Friis-Hansen, this uneven but eye-popping exhibition is so shallow it acquires its own kind of depth.
Surface is everything to Murakami -- it's all there is. I don't know if you're allowed to say this, but like a lot of contemporary Japanese artists Murakami is a craftmaster-whiz of flawless visual effects. He draws on traditional Japanese themes like flatness, pattern and ornamentation. His kaleidoscopic paintings of Hokusai-like waves, his Lichtensteinian splashes, and DOB, his big-headed Mickey Mouse-like creature, are so immaculate you will think a machine made them. And his painted figurative sculptures (like Hiropon) are so vivid they seem almost real. Magically vapid, these Pygmalion/Barbie/Sex Toy-things are less than spectacle and more than mere technical accomplishments. But all is not right.
Murakami's lack of depth may be dazzling, but his essential vision of this world of surface is fairly clichéd and immature. His ideas about sex, consumerism and fantasy -- especially in recent works -- have a dated familiarity. If you want substance or meaning, you're barking up the wrong show. You will leave here empty, irked at Murakami's "boyishness," his hackneyed ideas about sensuality, his imitations of Warhol and his ironic lack of imagination. But if you go with the visual flow, thunderbolts of impeccability can keep these thoughts at bay for wonderful minutes at a time.
Murakami is a style rider who works between pop art and popular culture. The sum and substance of this tradition, of course, is Andy Warhol, and it probably includes Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, maybe Damien Hirst and unfortunately Mark Kostabi. But it is also deeply Japanese.
If style is an ocean, and history a series of ongoing, unspoken connections, then Japan is the island of least resistance and total receptivity; a nation where style is the bounty as well as the sea. As Midori Matsui, a Japanese critic, writes in the show catalogue, "Nothing that grows in Japan is purely native. Everything is a reaction to and a modification of a received foreign culture. For centuries the major influence was China, since the late 19th century it has been the west." Insular and xenophobic, Japan is also utterly open and adaptable. It is the hermit crab of nations, the puppet who intermittently becomes the puppet master, the android who finds life.
Murakami wishes to inhabit this shell and make it his own. Born in Tokyo in 1962, he splits his time between Japan and New York ("where I get my fix of reality"). He began his career as a consumer-oriented artist in search of a product, an art object to call his own.
Initially, Murakami thought he might be that product, and began by making prints and posters of his own name. That was tabled for a foray into early '90s activist art, when he marshaled hundreds of tiny toy soldiers onto a vertical Nauman-like plinth, possibly a comment on the American occupation of post-World War II Japan.
Luckily he returned to the human-as-product theme in a clever little piece called "The Kase Taishuu Project," based on a real-life story about a Japanese entertainer who forfeited the right to his own name to his manager, who in turn gave the name to another actor. Murakami compounded things by hiring four art students to use the same name and even managed to convince the public and the press.
Then came DOB, an all-purpose character that Murakami first made manifest in 1993. A Disney-esque muppet thing derived partly from a monkeylike figure the artist saw in Hong Kong, DOB is all head; a happy face with big eyes, mouse ears, a button nose and a wide, grinning mouth. Occasionally he has a mouse body, with a little lightning bolt for a tail.
Murakami put DOB on key chains, T-shirts, telephone straps, and mouse pads. Kids got tattoos of DOB. He has his own handbook and Web site. Not only had Murakami found his product, he had created an alter ego.
As featured in a number of intensely decorative paintings, DOB was pulled apart and smacked around. He is transformed into drips, test patterns, DNA strands, or multi-mouthed creatures. Other times he erupts into camouflage pattern, or all-over psychedelic abstraction. In the killer Castle of Tin Tin (1998), DOB is a cyclone, a whirling vertical column, spurting out little DOBs and rivulets of liquid.
My favorite is DOB the inflatable. Here, filled with helium and suspended from the ceiling, is GuruGuru (1998). An enormous, looming head with a gaping mouth and many eyes peers down at you, like a blow-up Wizard of Oz. It's Cat in the Hat meets Moby Dick by way of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. I saw a little poodle go nuts under this wild thing.
Lately, however, DOB has taken far less interesting turns, mutating into a toothy mushroom sculpture, and a series of smiling flower paintings. Here Murakami is turning out product. He's thinking too much about what "a Murakami" should look like. He's trying to grow, when it feels like he really wants to hold on to his position.
Murakami says he wants to create a "new pop art," and he wants to make it out of Japanese culture, which, as we have seen, is made out of other cultures. But this is a risky strategy. First, this bricolage (as the literary critics call it), this piecing-together-from-pieces, is the air we breathe, the order of the day, and it will be for the foreseeable future. Look at any magazine or the way kids dress; styles are hyper-collapsing into one another.
Second, Murakami's main interest -- the realm of Manga (the radically distorted creatures that populate Japanese comic books, toys and computer games) and Anime (the cartoons and animated films) -- is by now well traveled. Japanimation almost seems cardboardy and slightly boring. Plus, even at his most popular DOB is no Homer Simpson. So let's not get carried away.
But there's something else haunting Murakami. And it dogs a lot of artists these days. His supporters maintain he is "the Japanese equivalent of Andy Warhol." And Murakami makes a lot of pretentious references to Warhol. One of his sculptures, of a boy ejaculating a lariat of semen, is titled My Lonesome Cowboy; now he's making flower paintings, and calls his studio "The Hiropon Factory." May I remind you that Warhol's Factory was most of all an ark, a state of mind, a spacecraft of consciousness, emitting strange holy vibrations, godly sensations and inspiration. Murakami's studio is a business.
You should look at Murakami's art shamelessly, celebrate its seductiveness and clarity, and even adore it. But also hope that he stops trying so hard to make art. In spite of his nod to popular culture, Murakami has fallen far behind it. Too satisfied with too little, his fatal attraction to the art world keeps him returning to the surface. He's forgotten that surface is a thousand miles deep.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.